Friday, 24 September 2010

Reconfiguring the Right

Singing from the same song-sheet: National's "Broad Church" made perfect sense in the FPP era of two-party politics. But does the union of liberal city-dwellers and conservative country-folk continue to make sense in the age of MMP - especially if (as seems likely) Act's crucial votes are removed from the Right's electoral equation?

A "LOYA JIRGA": that’s what John Key and the National Party need; a Loya Jirga of the Right.

In moments of crisis, when important decisions need to be made, the tribal chieftains and village head-men of the Pashtun people emerge from their mountain fastnesses in Afghanistan and Pakistan to deliberate together in a "Loya" (Great or Grand) "Jirga" (Council).

The head-men and tribal chieftains of liberal and conservative New Zealand could do a lot worse than follow the Pashtun example. Because, whether the Prime Minister cares to admit it or not, the implosion of the Act Party poses a huge risk to the future of the National Party-led Government.

If (as seems likely) the Act Party is driven from the House of Representatives at next year’s election, the odds against Mr Key being able to preserve a credible and stable administration are formidable. Though National may well receive the largest number of votes in 2011, assembling a parliamentary majority will be extremely difficult without Act’s five seats.

Nor should Mr Key rely upon the Maori Party riding to his rescue. By this time next year there’s a good chance the public face of the Maori Party will have changed dramatically.

Act isn’t the only National ally experiencing difficulties at the moment. Grass-roots dissatisfaction with the Maori Party’s current leadership has risen sharply in response to the perceived shortcomings of the Marine and Coastal Area (Takutai Moana) Bill. As the 2011 election draws near, Mr Key may see his good friend, Dr Pita Sharples, replaced by someone much less at ease in the Centre-Right tent.

One presumes the National Party’s strategists understand that their Maori Party allies have no enduring loyalty to voters registered on the General Roll. Secure in their Maori Roll redoubt, they enjoy the extraordinary privilege of being able to abandon old allies with impunity.

If the Maori Party concludes that it’s got just about everything it’s going to get out of the 2008 deal with National, there are no serious electoral impediments to it broaching a new deal with Labour in 2011.

A Loya Jirga of the Right could address these looming problems holistically. In much the same way as the chiefs and head-men of the shattered liberal and conservative movement came together in 1936 to reassemble their scattered forces and forge a political weapon equal to the challenge laid down by a triumphant Left.

The National Party represented the Right’s long-delayed adjustment to the new reality of two-party politics.

From the formation of the Labour Party in 1916, until its eventual triumph in 1935, the New Zealand political landscape had been dominated by three major parties. Indeed, that twenty year period may be looked upon as one in which the Right struggled to come to terms with the brute electoral reality that two parties of the Right were one party too many.

Under our present electoral system (and with no real prospect of a return to FFP) the Right faces precisely the opposite dilemma. Rather than too many large parties on the right of the political spectrum, there are too few – and they’re the wrong sort.

The natural division of right-wing labour in this country (like Australia) is between the conservative inhabitants of rural and provincial New Zealand, and the liberal citizens of its major cities. The merging of their respective standard-bearers, the Reform and United parties, to defeat the socialists, made perfect sense ..... in 1936. In a country almost certain to retain some form of proportional representation, their continued forced cohabitation under a single roof makes no sense at all.

The current National-Act configuration is similarly nonsensical. Essentially a neoliberal/libertarian party, Act’s natural constituency is among the economically-dry but socially-wet sophisticates of Auckland and Wellington. But, since these voters are already securely enrolled in either National’s or Labour’s ranks, Act has been forced to seek support from whoever would give it – which turned out to be Far-Right provincial populists. Not surprisingly, it’s been an extremely uncomfortable fit.

At the "Grand Council" which the Right really should convene (and soon) two new parties: one for provincial conservatives; one for urban liberals; should be assembled from the current memberships of National, Act, United Future and NZ First.

I’ll leave the two new parties’ names, logos and credos to Crosby-Textor, but my picks for their respective presidents would be Garth McVicar and Deborah Coddington.

This essay was originally published in The Timaru Herald, The Taranaki Daily News, The Otago Daily Times and The Greymouth Evening Star of Friday, 24 September 2010.


Victor said...

Aren't you being a bit over-schematic, Chris?

My impression is that the majority of national voters are neither urban(neo)liberals nor visceral populists but moderate conservatives, with the inherent conservative distrust of excessive dogma or over-tight positions.

I can't see either Garth McVicar or Deborah Coddington as representatives of such folk.

Chris Trotter said...

I strongly disagree, Victor. In my experience, National's rank-and-file (like Labour's) are considerably less "moderate" than their parliamentary representatives.

If you doubt the truly hair-curling conservatism of the typical rural/provincial voter, I would invite you to listen-in to any dinner-party conversation taking place in Balclutha or Napier.

Believe me, it would make Garth McVicar look like a liberal.

Drop into a Karori or Mt Eden dinner party, however, and I'll wager the tone is very much that of the fragrant Ms Coddington.

Victor said...


Maybe we're both right.

I suspect there are not two but three right-of-centre tribes in New Zealand; the neo-liberals, the rednecks and the moderate conservatives.

In my experience, the last of these seem to predominate in much of suburban Auckland. I have no statistical evidence for this, merely an overwhelming impression gained from conversations with friends, in-laws and people I do business with.

Their views on a range of issues aren't typically very different from those of many Labour voters. But, for a variety of reasons (more cultural than ideological)they identify more readily with National and (despite manifold evidence to the contrary) trust it to do a more competent job of running the country.

John Key's political strengths lie in his ability to appeal to this group and to convince them that National truly is their party and represents their views and aspirations.

You may say that the group I'm describing are floating voters rather than National loyalists. But that would be to suggest that they are just as likely to vote Labour as National, whereas it would take a political earthquake for many of them to take this step.

There almost was a political earthquake in the early 1990s, following Ruth Richardson's 'Mother of All Budgets'. Interestingly, at that point, dissident moderate conservatives flocked to the Alliance rather than to Labour.

Another political earthquake would be the re-alignment of the right along the lines you have suggested. Why would National take so self-destructive a step?

But let's, for the sake of argument, assume it did do so. There could then be a space needing filling by a moderate conservative party. Ten years ago, I'd have picked Chris Fletcher as its most likely president. Today, perhaps, Katherine Rich.

aj said...

I have to agree with Chris' comment. Living in the rural south, it is truly quite frightening to listen to some people's views. It makes you realise that some mixture of McVicar/Tamaki/Hide/Garrett with popular appeal would garner a surprising amount of far right support. Some would slot quite nicely into the Tea Party. They have the same disregard for facts and logic when it comes to law and order in particular.

Lindum said...

I made a very similar argument in my first ever 100-level Pol Sci essay in 1994. The question was essentially: 'How might the party system change under MMP'.

I argued, among other things, that we could expect National to split into a morally conservative rural/provincial party of the Right and a morally liberal urban party of the Centre-Right. Received a particularly high mark for that essay, but the prediction turned out to be wrong.

Sanctuary said...

First of all, provincial NZ is not the same as rural NZ. There is plenty of cordial dislike of whining and self-entitled farmers amongst the peoples of places like New Plymouth and Napier and Nelson - it is just we don't hear them anymore, their voices have been stilled by poverty and media neglect.

Having grown up in Hawkes Bay, I have to admit that certain intellectual closing of the mind occurred in the 1990's, a combination of the long provincial depression of that decade, abandonment by central government and the withering of local media oversaw a loss of vitality and a certain meanness enter the provincial zeitgeist, from which they have not yet really begun to recover.

Politics in Hawkes Bay reflects the wider hollowing out of our democracy in it's slide into a low wage semi-feudal state, with the local small time wannabe squireocracy annointing members of their elite based on wealth and family to be MP's and the organised and apathetic lumpen mass ignored except when they need to be frightened into voting for their betters - a similar state to the Republican Party in the US South, I guess. Abandonment by the state has created a seige mentality. Neglected and withered local media reflects this seige mentality - it is obsessed about one issue, the threat of outsiders to their (of course blessed) way of life and the plucky resilience, resourcefulness and common sense of the locals in the face of adversity. A wierd dissonance is abroad in Napier, where fearful and worried people in insecure and low paying jobs hurry down streets full of half-empty shops convincing themselves they live in the luckiest place in the world.

But you know, for all that I am convinced this great provincial closing of the mind in my home town of Napier - the beautiful home of the soul of my Whakapapa for five generations - is just a zeitgeist, and underneath the generous, open minded people of the prosperous province of my youth still exist. People may often be unreconstructed and narrow minded racists and homophobes, social conservaives of the most boorish type. But in other ways they are also generous and empirical - and if you wave, they'll still wave back. There is a very good chance a provincial party would be to the left of both our current main parties on economic matters. More to the point, this temporary state of mind in the provinces (and I know it is not a permanent mindset, for I know of another age where it wasn't so) could be reversed in the blink of an eye, if a modicum of wealth and the attendant mobilising energy of prosperity were to again flow through the provincial working class. The current political state of Hawkes Bay is built on a foundation of sand - totally reliant on a conservative domination of local media and a monopoly of neo-fundamentalist, right wing propaganda presented in the local media as unbiased news. Any future left wing government certainly has to look at re-opening the provincial mind by creating media ownership laws (and perhaps funding local TV) that allow the fundamentally good people of places like Napier to see both sides of the coin on local matters.

I think that provincial New Zealand is full of good people, but they've been abandoned for a quarter of a century by our urban political elites. Give them a chance - some prosperity for the working man, somewhere to read, see or hear differing local political opinions - and the left might be very pleasantly surprised.

Anonymous said...

While there are merits to this, it would allow parties access which have been locked out so far. Think of the various Christian parties which haven't made the 5% cut off yet. If those supporters were freed from National they could speak out more, vote for a party which represents them more and be similar to the Maori party in that they could support whatever suits them.

I have mixed feelings about such an explicit religious party and the results of that.

Victor said...


The reason your prediction turned out to be wrong, is that it's in the interests of both metropolitan neo-liberals and provincial conservatives to remain in the same party as each other.

The neo-liberals need the provincial conservatives to provide the numbers and the organisation, outside of metropolitan areas.

The provincial conservatives need the neo-liberals for their media power and their access to funds and boadrooms.

The inevitable fate of a provincial conservative party deprived of neo-liberal support was exemplified by that of NZ First.

The seemingly perpetual alliance of the two centre-right strands might not make ideological sense. But it succeeds much of the time in keeping Labour out of office. So, don't expect things to change in a hurry.